Monday, April 10, 2006

Call Me Cassandra

Last week an elderly Jewish man was pulled over by the police in New York. I am not entirely clear exactly what happened but it seems clear he had committed some minor misdemeanor. Enraged Chassidim claim he is deaf and could not follow police instructions so the police beat him before arresting him. More reliable sources are less dramatic and say he might have been treated a little forcefully as he was cuffed and led to the patrol car after belligerently refusing to hand over his papers. I know very few actual details and those come from notoriously biased and unreliable sources so I am not going to offer my opinion on the rights or wrongs of the police action.

What followed however was a scandalously irresponsible riot by the Torah warriors of Borough Park. Fires were lit on the streets and police cars were attacked. At least one police car is said to have had a Molotov cocktail thrown through its window. It took riot police hours to quiet the streets according to press reports. Local Chassidim while worried about the Chillul Hashem (desecration of His name) the riot caused are adamant that the police had it coming to them because of their aggressive enforcement of traffic laws in their area.

Last week a twenty-year-old ultra-orthodox man admitted his three-month old baby boy to hospital with internal bleeding in the head and bite marks on the neck. The baby subsequently died and the father has been charged with manslaughter after allegedly admitting beating it. Apparently the infant, who the father suspected was malformed, had not allowed him to sleep and had had his head bashed against a wall. Again I do not know any facts other than those the media is releasing and thus I have no opinion on the rights or wrongs of the case. Not surprisingly though, the Rabbinate in Jerusalem do know for certain he is completely innocent and have threatened riots if he is not released immediately. The police have taken the threat seriously and are bracing to contain them.

I know the Rabbi of Jerusalem and he is a well-meaning man. That however does not excuse such abhorrent naïveté. It is unpardonable that a community should try and use its brute force to squash vital investigations into reprehensible crimes. I believe most just people would agree to be locked up for a few days, even when innocent, if that would help keep actual child killers behind bars.

To offer a blanket amnesty to anyone wearing the garb is racist for implying that non-frum people kill babies and Chassidim don’t. Worse than that it is shortsighted because it is very likely that the father will eventually be found to be guilty and we will have shot ourselves in the leg again. It also proves that, on our list of priorities, protecting the good name of the community comes before protection of the members of the community and that is even worse.

On the other hand the very language of riot and Molotov cocktails used to be alien to the Chassidic movement and it is worrying that in the space of a week it has flared up in two completely isolated incidents. The causes are different it is true. The debacle in Jerusalem is a testament to our system of appointing leaders on the basis of their scholarly achievements while little to no attention is given to their actual leadership qualities and sound judgment. It is patently obvious that both are sadly lacking in this case.

The American riots stem more from a lack of any sort of leadership and are for me far more worrying. There is no doubt in my mind that a generation of Chassidim is growing up and learning to flex its muscles. It is a tight-knit and homogenous group with a very fast if less than reliable grapevine. The youth feels alienated from a society that thinks the official Jewish groups who claim to speak for all Jewry represent them too, while their real voices are in reality seldom even noticed. Needless to say it would be wise to bend an ear.